Not the best year

In many ways 2021 has not been a lot of fun. For me, it started with catching COVID-19, along with many of the friends I game with, and while, fortunately, we all recovered, it was a distinctly “unfun” start to what proved to be an unfun year. Travel restrictions kept us apart from family for another year. Work got really grim and demoralising and my workload expanded dramatically. But this blog post is not about how my work sucked, or how COVID-19 sucks, or even about why I didn’t post for a year… it’s about gaming! Specifically, what have I been running since my last post over a year ago.

Virtual Table Top

I virtually went virtual table top exclusive this year, with only a few face to face sessions of Pendragon breaking up the online play. This was not just because of the pandemic, really – by the middle of the year I and most people I know were fully vaccinated. It’s actually because, with the exception of the Pendragon group, my game groups in 2021 were split across continents! Most of my virtual table top play stayed on Roll20, using Zoom for audio/video, although I did play in a campaign run using Fantasy Grounds Unity. I have an eye on Foundry as a possibility for future campaigns depending on whether the system I want to play is supported on that platform.

I think it’s more inertia than anything else which keeps me on Roll20. My familiarity with the platform means it remains my “go to” for any new campaign I am GMing, although it’s frustrating how many of the same problems the platform has had for the entire 9+ years I have used it remain, while an inordinate amount of development time seems to have been spent re-developing dynamic lighting. For what it’s worth, in the end the new dynamic lighting does appear to be better, but I am not sure it was worth the year and a half or so of messing up the lighting settings in my games and having to re-learn what the controls and widgets all do. In the meantime, dynamic pop-up menus e.g. for token settings still render half out of the visible area of the screen when you try to use them on a token near the top of the play area, maps still import at the wrong size based on your zoom bar setting, maps remain a total pain in the arse to align to a grid unless they have been designed for VTT use, macros seem to randomly stop working and still have no intuitive conditional statements, and you continue to need web development skills to make your own character sheet. Frankly I am probably only scratching the surface of the irritations I have built up with the platform over many years, and as I type all of that, I do wonder why I persist with it. As I said earlier, it must be inertia.

Nearly Four Years of Lamentations

Three years ago I asked what counted as a long Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign. My Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign wrapped up at the end of November 2020. It was a great campaign, but when the player characters escaped the alien world of Barbarians Of Orange Boiling Seas (affiliate link), and got back to London in 1644, with King Charles I having humbled his Parliament in the Civil War, the players felt like they had achieved everything that their characters wished to achieve.

I am still working on converting campaign notes from this campaign into some books/PDFs for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The “big picture” setting and several new character classes from this campaign have been published in Lexicon Geographicum Arcanum volume 1: Species of the Hollow Earth, and I am hoping to release more volumes when I can. This is the same campaign which gave birth to the Womb Cult.

As a group, we agreed it was time to leave our heroes (well, protagonists) to enjoy their lives back in England’s green and pleasant land, and to play something else. We might come back to these characters and their future adventures sometime in the future, or they may be retired forever. The player characters, at the time we left them, were:

  • Anubi Deragoth, a Level 7 Fomorian (a character class from Lexicon Geographicum Arcanum vol 1).
  • Barnaby Westmore, a Level 7 Specialist.
  • John Bullock, a Level 7 Classless character (using the rules from The Undercroft #4 – affiliate link), recently made undead.
  • Astrid Leifsdottir, a Level 7 Cleric (the only original character from the campaign’s second group of PCs).

The players from this campaign formed the core of my Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign group (more below).

A Gentler 2020

As noted earlier on this blog, the first RPG I ever owned was the 1991 black box edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The second RPG I ever owned was Cyberpunk 2020. I played it a lot through the 90s, but I haven’t touched it for years. At the start of 2020, before I had any idea exactly how dystopian it was going to turn out, with a new print-on-demand copy of Cyberpunk 2020 in hand, I made a resolution that I would run Cyberpunk 2020 again in 2020. When October 2020 hit, I realised I was running out of 2020 in which to run the game!

This was a fun campaign set in Night City in 2020. Most of the players were new to the game and the setting, but I did have one old cyberpunk who knew his stuff. Running Cyberpunk 2020 was a very nostalgic experience. The system is definitely one which requires the referee to reign things in and say no in the interests of game balance and everybody else’s fun. It’s also one very much prone to min/maxing, although this seems like it makes sense “in world” more so than it does in a lot of RPGs.

I allowed players to pick any role for their characters, and we had a good mix: Cop, Fixer, Netrunner, Rockerboy, and Nomad. The story was mostly driven by two player characters (a Cop and a Fixer), which I wasn’t entirely pleased with as a referee, but the other players didn’t seem to mind, and there were times to shine for everyone at least. I think there’s some challenge in Cyberpunk in terms of building a party which makes sense in-character, as well as has complimentary role-based abilities in which everyone has their own niche. At least to me, some roles imply particular things about a campaign – in this case, the Cop in particular implied a law-enforcement compatible if not driven story. There was some occasional tension when the Cop had to turn a blind eye to illegality on the part of the other player characters, for example, which required a good deal of flexibility from the Cop’s player.

We had a brief, 3 month campaign, played weekly. The main plot revolved around a corrupt scheme to build a mallplex over the top of an economically deprived area of south Night City, and it involved corporate scheming, organised crime, and corruption in City Hall. It was a lot of fun, and it left a good taste in everyone’s mouth, so everyone was keen to play a new Cyberpunk campaign in 2021, this time using Cyberpunk RED, which came out while we were playing CP2020. More on that later.

Incidentally, if you have Cyberpunk 2077 on PC, you probably have a copy of Cyberpunk 2020 as a PDF (both the English and Polish versions!) somewhere in the game’s installation folders. I have the game on Steam, and found (yet another copy of) Cyberpunk 2020 here: programfiles/steam/steamapps/common/Cyberpunk 2077/BonusContent/sourcebook

Incidentally, while it copped a lot of flak for underdelivering on the hype and a very bugged release on consoles, I really enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077, which I played on what was a brand new gaming PC at the end of 2020 without any technical difficulties. Perhaps not the greatest game ever, but much better I think than the bad press suggests, and as a fan of the Cyberpunk 2020 game since the 90s, I was blown away by Cyberpunk 2077. It was a fantastic love letter to Cyberpunk 2020.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and The Enemy Within

About twenty years ago I hunted across eBay for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and The Enemy Within in its various volumes. At that time, WFRP was already old – the first edition of the game came out in 1986 and had a renaissance under Hogshead Publishing in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the second edition was not yet out. I had been a keen Warhammer player through the 1990s, and still have an enormous affection for both Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Warhammer 40,000 (although not that Age of Sigmar blasphemy). At least part of the appeal for me when I first picked up Lamentations of the Flame Princess was the idea of running a Warhammer-like game in my own renaissance fantasy world. Ironically, I never really played it like that, deciding instead to run my campaign in 17th Century England (albeit an England above a Hollow Earth), but when we wrapped up our Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign, I suggested to the players that we could play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and finally try out the famous Enemy Within campaign. We were joined by other friends too, keen to play WFRP and The Enemy Within specifically.

My first problem was those books I had hunted down on eBay twenty years ago were on the opposite side of the world from me now – either in storage (if I am lucky) or scattered to the ether (if I am unlucky). Fortunately, the new publisher of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Cubicle 7, has very decently made available not only the PDFs of their version of the game, but of the first and second edition too (affiliate links), and has run a couple of very good value Humble Bundles with the core books and all the sourcebooks. At the time we started the campaign, Cubicle 7 had not yet finished publishing its re-release of The Enemy Within for their own Fourth Edition of the game (affiliate link), and I was a little discouraged by some of the naysayers about the new edition, and decided to stick with the first edition of WFRP. While the first edition certainly has its charm, and I don’t mind it being a product of its era, I didn’t anticipate that through the course of 2021, WFRP 4th edition would see releases of its core rules and adventures on Roll20 and Foundry – Roll20 is lagging a little behind Foundry in this respect (at the time of writing, The Enemy Within has not yet come to Roll20). While it’s not critical, since almost all of my gaming has been on Roll20 this year, I feel like having publisher VTT support for the campaign would make a lot of things a lot easier on me as a GM – especially since I run so many games. There’s a lot of fiddly bits – mostly involving exporting maps and artwork from the PDFs of the original printings and then importing them into Roll20 – which wouldn’t be an issue if I was using the support for WFRP 4th edition on Foundry. In addition, I’ve picked up the 4th edition of the game’s PDFs, and while it doesn’t have the characterful late 80s black and white artwork, it’s really obvious that the new edition of the game is indeed made by people who love Warhammer and loved the original game. The soul of WFRP seems very much present in its latest iteration. But, for fear that it would be, and out of a vastly over optimistic view about how fast we’d play through The Enemy Within, I stuck with WFRP 1st edition.

I must say, one year in, I have mixed feelings about this campaign. I feel like it took us a number of sessions before we started getting the right “feel” for the game. It’s difficult to explain exactly what I mean by that, and I think at least part of the reason why is that the opening sessions of the campaign were very railroad-y, an experience quite dissimilar to our Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign. The climax of the very first adventure, Mistaken Identity, has one of the player characters find a dead body for which they are an exact double. This dead body is also carrying a letter indicating that they are on the way to collect a significant inheritance. I don’t know whether I picked the wrong player because he wasn’t interested in the idea, or whether I picked the wrong player because he could smell a railroad’s plot hook coming a mile off and very consciously rejected it, but I picked the wrong player. Picking the wrong player for this plot hook is a real pain, because there are very few plot hooks and clues to keep the player characters chasing the various villains of the first couple of volumes, and any variances from the “rails” is liable to leave very important plot hooks missed altogether.

I also think that the game made greater roleplaying demands of the players than the group had become accustomed to with the online format. At least part of this may be that we were not using Zoom video chat for this campaign. Instead, we carried through with the technologies we had been using for LotFP – Roll20 and TeamSpeak 3, which is audio-only. If players step away from the table, even if it is just for a moment, nobody can tell without a video feed – and several times an NPC would launch into the start of a conversation with a character only to find that character’s player away from their microphone and presumably earshot. I also think that larger groups are harder to work with in online games than around a physical table. Around a physical table, it is easier for multiple discussions to happen and for players to slip into a discussion or speak up in pauses in a conversation. It’s harder to do this online – harder also to let the GM know that you need to momentarily step away to answer a call of nature, perhaps compounding the earlier mentioned phenomena. I’ve recently switched the campaign to Zoom to try to reduce these issues, but I suspect strongly it’s always going to be an issue with online play with larger groups.

Another issue we had early in the campaign was getting our heads around careers in WFRP and how they differed from classes in D&D and D&D-based games. Careers are meant to be something your character actually pursues “in-character” in WFRP, which is to say, if you want to switch your career to “Bounty Hunter” you are supposed to actually train and become a bounty hunter in the world, and hunt down criminals for money. Character classes in D&D on the other hand are mostly abstract. When a player character “levels up” in D&D they just get better. Some DMs might insist that characters should spend some time in town training to gain their next level, sure, but these are house rules – and can easily apply fairly evenly across all player character classes. On the other hand, in WFRP you need to not only spend your Experience Points to gain your new career, you need to find a trainer, and realistically you probably need to spend a bunch of downtime doing this. Despite this being the case, The Enemy Within campaign (at least, the first two parts) doesn’t really afford you much opportunity for downtime. Mistaken Identity is a railroad on a schedule, the plot in Shadows over Bögenhafen (affiliate link) is going to unfold on a fixed schedule no matter what, and much of Death on the Reik (affiliate link) is supposed to be a fairly strictly timed pursuit. Given this is “the” Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, why is the action so incompatible with the way character advancement is supposed to be played out in the world? Generally speaking, we have allowed careers to change on the assumption that player characters can practice them “on the side” e.g. while travelling the rivers of Reikland on their boat, but this is more practical with some careers than others.

I realise I have spent three paragraphs complaining and it would be enough to make anyone think I do not enjoy WFRP or this campaign. This isn’t true. As time has gone on and we have all “found our feet” more with the system, I’ve come to enjoy the game more and more. There are lots of fun, dramatic confrontations in The Enemy Within so far – and we are nearly at the end of Death on the Reik after 18 sessions of play. But as I have come to understand WFRP better, I have come to think that a better campaign might be one a bit more stationary, based in a city, which followed the player characters going about their ordinary life more while the pernicious Enemy Within schemed from the shadows – something a little grittier than this high fantasy adventure romp.

Assuming that the campaign keeps going through 2022, I am eventually going to have to decide what to do after Power Behind the Throne (affiliate link). The original volume 4, Something Rotten in Kislev (affiliate link), is apparently not part of the original development team’s vision for The Enemy Within – it started life as an unrelated adventure which got shoe-horned into the campaign as Games Workshop’s interest in the roleplaying game line waned and budgets shrank accordingly. The Cubicle 7 “Director’s Cut” edition of the campaign replaces Something Rotten in Kislev with The Horned Rat (affiliate link), and I shall have to think about whether to do this in my campaign as well. If so, I suppose I will have to decide whether to convert the characters to WFRP 4th edition, or whether to convert the module to WFRP 1st edition!

Cyberpunk RED: Not my shining hour

After the success of my “Gentler 2020” Cyberpunk 2020 campaign, that same group and I were keen to give the new Cyberpunk RED a go in 2021. I should really write a review of Cyberpunk RED and share my thoughts about the game, because there’s surprisingly few reviews out there which seem to be based on significant amounts of actual campaign play – most are based on a read through only, or on the Jumpstart Kit. But this is not the place for that! Let me instead tell you how I failed to run the game I wanted to run and kept failing at it because it took me months past the point it should have done for me to say “Guys, let’s play something else”.

I had one player from the CP2020 campaign who decided not to play in Cyberpunk RED – my wife, who wanted to limit her gaming to the on-going AD&D and Pendragon campaigns we were both a part of in early 2021. She was replaced by a good friend of mine whose interest in Cyberpunk had been piqued by playing Cyberpunk 2077. Otherwise, this was the same group as played “A Gentler 2020” described previously. The new player was not previously known to the rest of the group, and over the first few sessions, there was some obvious tension between the new player and the “old” players. I think this was due both to differing approaches to the game, but most of all because of a failed session 0 discussion about the campaign premise.

“Session 0” is supposed to be the way to avoid conflicts between players and between players and the referee. I have been doing a “Session 0” since before I knew people called it “Session 0”. Still, I have managed to screw this up as a referee in a couple of campaigns in recent times, and there’s at least one other game I’ve been a part of as a player where I think the cause of a later conflict was due to session 0 problems. So, let it be acknowledged that just having a session 0 is not a panacea for all potential problems in a campaign! In this particular campaign, trying to avoid the “group being torn in opposite directions” phenomenon from “A Gentler 2020”, we discussed some of the rulebook’s suggested team types. One of these in particular had caught my eye – a Trauma Team. I don’t think I pushed it to the exclusion of other options but maybe I did it subconsciously. We decided we’d play a Trauma Team, and the different players picked their different roles. Crucially, the new player picked an Exec (Cyberpunk RED‘s equivalent of CP2020‘s Corp role), and the other players picked various roles (Medtech, Tech, Solo).

The economy in Cyberpunk RED is a game system in its own right. I’ll explore this more in my review but suffice it to say that whereas in CP2020 characters can have a regular salary determined by how many ranks they have in their role ability, characters in RED earn money for gigs, whether these are missions played out in game, or randomly (and less remuneratively) rolled in downtime. They have to pay for accommodation and lifestyle, and these are fixed monthly costs varying only for the quality of lifestyle they want. You can see that as a game mechanic, the intention here is to make sure the player characters get out there and do missions to get paid to pay their bills. One of the Exec’s role abilities is that their employer provides them with their accommodation – by “selling out” they get a secure roof over their head. They still get no additional salary on top of this, mechanically, so they also need to earn their money through gigs, but things are less precarious for them economically. This was all explained within the game world fiction of my Trauma Team that whereas the Exec was a regular employee of Trauma Team, the rest of the team were, in effect, contractors or casual employees, paid per gig. This allowed me to preserve the game mechanic for mission rewards built into RED, but I think it created a sense of injustice and resentment of the Exec. To some extent that’s very thematic for Cyberpunk, but in this case it effectively created the sense that the game rules (as opposed to the fictional society they represented) were unjust, and a desire by the non-Exec players to effectively “acquire” part of the Exec’s role ability (i.e. the secure accommodation) – and maybe the sense that the Exec (character or player or both) was not entirely on their side.

This sense was not helped by the fact that the Exec was also, in-character, a kind of “line manager”, and no matter how much the player wanted to consciously avoid bossing the other players around, several missions unfolded in such ways as to strain all fictional credibility to think that the Exec should accept the behaviour of some of the other characters. Much as in “A Gentler 2020”, when the Cop character had to turn a blind eye to the illegal conduct of the Fixer, the Exec character was being challenged to turn a blind eye to reckless disregard for the safety of Trauma Team clients by the Medtech. However, whereas it seemed to make more sense in the CP2020 campaign because there was an “upside” to the Cop turning a blind eye (they generally profited from the illegality too), in the RED campaign the only reasons for the Exec to turn a blind eye were out of character ones (i.e. not wanting to have conflict between players). Eventually, the Exec’s player decided to leave the game when the rest of the group wanted to move away from the Trauma Team campaign premise discussed in session 0 and re-orient the game on more general “edgerunning” pursuing their own heists and ambitions.

The campaign continued on for some time, but kept failing to “click” from my perspective. Despite liking the players and enjoying hanging out with them, I wasn’t enjoying the game itself. Eventually, another player quit, and that gave me the impetus to move on from the campaign. I briefly started another Cyberpunk RED campaign, but by this point in the year I was suffering very significant referee burn-out, and declared as much to the players and closed that campaign too. Maybe we’ll play something else in 2022.

The Drag in Pendragon

Back in 2017 I started running the Great Pendragon Campaign. We’ve gained and lost some players since that time, and in early 2020 three of the four still regular players all became parents for the first time – and then the pandemic hit. Playing through 2020 became sporadic and online, with the players mostly exhausted by the game falling on the evening of the last day of the working week, and tending to start later than it had before they had newborns so as to permit newborns to go to sleep beforehand. 2021 followed a similar pattern, but the game got more regular again, and moved away from being online back to being face to face. However, the late start on an evening at the end of the working week, now the only timeslot available due to all the other games being played on the weekend, was not helping the quality of those sessions, either from my end as the referee or from the players.

We were just all too tired to make up for the later start, and the game had settled into a pattern of play centred on Pendragon 5th edition’s various mini-games. Either there was a war, and thus a battle using The Book of Battle‘s battle system, or we’d play a court feast using The Book of Feasts (complete with the players chanting “Feast Cards! Feast Cards!” whenever the prospect of dinner is in the offering) or both. I tried to break this pattern by pushing the knights to go on adventures, but as if often the case when a referee pushes player characters to go on adventures, the player characters find ways to subvert them. Pendragon‘s published adventures, both those in the Great Pendragon Campaign book and in the various other adventure books, have also always been problematic for this particular group. The adventures are often filled with allegorical scenes and are mostly solved through a combination of trait rolls (i.e. tests of virtue or character) and combat. Several players consistently mistake the allegorical scenes for “puzzles” to be solved, and the action grinds to a halt while they attempt to solve something which needs no solving. Further, many of the published adventures are quite railroad-y if I am honest, despite my great affection for Pendragon. When we’re all tired at the end of the week, all too often we either make no progress through an adventure, or I am more or less narrating for the party what happens until they hit a point where I ask them to roll some dice.

This is not how Pendragon is supposed to be played! This is not how we were playing Pendragon not that long ago. I proposed to the group that we suspend the campaign until we could move the timing of it to a time at which we were not all exhausted and brain dead. Hopefully this happens in early 2022, because we are about two-thirds of the way through the Great Pendragon Campaign and we all want to make it through!

Chivalry & Sorcery

My Chivalry & Sorcery 5th edition (affiliate link) campaign set in mythic Averoigne in historical early 14th Century France has gone on for 40 sessions and continues. We are certainly near the end of the campaign based on what there is left to do in Averoigne. Earlier in the year, the party decided to confront the enemies I had intended for them to fight in the final climax a little bit ahead of that timing, and I became a little worried that there were no potential enemies remaining who could be more threatening. With a bit of refactoring, this is no longer the case, and I am hoping that the campaign’s final act is fun and fulfilling for everyone. After a somewhat shaky start, we’ve had a good campaign, and good campaigns deserve good endings – let’s hope I can pull off something suitably satisfying!

I do have some observations about C&S 5th edition after 40 sessions. We’ve been playing the game for nearly two years now – actually since just before I got my physical books from the Kickstarter, I believe. This edition of the game already has a very large number of products released for it and is very probably the best supported edition of Chivalry & Sorcery ever. Few core rulebooks feel so comprehensive as does the 5th edition of Chivalry & Sorcery, and there’s great satisfaction to be derived from the depth of different subsystems (e.g. combat, magick, religion). In my opinion, sometimes the rules give too many options (particularly in the case of combat), but it is generally easy to take what you want and leave the rest. Character generation is detailed and very satisfying. The downside of this is that as a GM, it can be difficult to improvise the stats for NPCs “on the fly”. The player characters are getting to be higher level now (I believe the highest is level 14 as I write this, and most are within a few levels of that), and it is notable that player characters become much more powerful at high level, which is especially true for magick users. They don’t necessarily get any “tougher” in terms of their ability to take damage, but most characters become much better at avoiding taking damage as they become more powerful.

So, beyond just for storytelling reasons, I think that it is a good time for the campaign to draw to a close from a mechanical perspective as well. High-level magick really changes the game in dramatic ways, and increasingly it feels that the campaign’s established setting, Averoigne, cannot really contain these characters. To some extent, I struggle to see how an historical setting can contain high-level magick user characters – how, in particular, can the Church exert as much control and authority as it historically did, if it is challenged by powerful magick users? That said, the miracles available to priestly characters can be very powerful, and at least part of my struggle is my own lack of willingness to employ greater miracles against player characters! I still think that the magick system provides a lot of satisfaction for players as they climb the ranks.

I do worry that the campaign serves some of the players better than others. There has not been enough urban intrigue, for example, and the thief and assassin characters have not had the same opportunities to shine as the characters who are more at home in Averoigne’s deep, dark forests. I have been using World Anvil for this campaign to organise my notes about the setting and be able to draw them up in play. Only one of the players seems to follow what I make available in World Anvil, but it’s still useful for me as a referee, so I persist.

One final reason to start drawing the curtains on Averoigne: I have an urge to run a campaign in 2022 set in a medieval fantasy setting I worked on years ago but have never used yet. I think that Chivalry & Sorcery is the ideal system to run this campaign, and I often find my thoughts drifting towards planning for that game.

Next post, I’ll talk about what I have been playing in 2021!

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